Women still face hurdles with board occupancy

April 30, 2012
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While corporations on the whole have given discrimination against females the skunk eye, women who want to be regarded as credible candidates for public and private corporate boards of directors can’t assume their gender alone is reason for corporations to tap them to increase board diversity.

Instead, they may need to acquire the panache to make themselves marketable, which often includes acquiring a requisite skill set to become a good match with a specific corporation, according to a four-member panel at an Inforum Center for Leadership-sponsored seminar held April 17 at Kent Country Club.

Impressing board recruiters and nominating committees may require knowing what it takes to serve on an audit or compensation committee, gaining international experience, determining which corporate board is a good fit, ferreting out “bad boards,” developing an inquisitive attitude, establishing a network of contacts and starting out with a worthy nonprofit organization’s committee or board, which nowadays mirrors the same intellectual dexterity for-profits’ boards require.

Panel members had plenty of experience on both sides of the coin. Michael Jandernoa is a partner for Bridge Street Capital and a director of Business Leaders for Michigan and Grand Angels, as well as former CEO of Perrigo. Jody Vanderwel is president of Grand Angels and former corporate counsel and vice president for Herman Miller Inc. Vanderwel serves on the Michigan Venture Capital Association board, the Michigan Accelerator Fund/Advisory board and the Fuller Theological Seminary board. Dale Winston is chairwoman and CEO of Amrop Battalia Winston, one of the largest woman-owned executive search firms in the U.S. and a member of Amrop’s global governing board. Kate Pew Wolters is president of the Kate and Richard Wolters Foundation, chairwoman of the Steelcase Foundation and a Grand Valley State University trustee.

About 30 years ago, the few requirements to serve on a corporate board usually included being a friend or family member or in good stead with the CEO. Today, companies take a far different route, said Jandernoa.

“They’re very clear on what skill sets are necessary to serve on a committee,” Jandernoa said.

Writing board-ready résumés and bios should start with reviewing one’s entire career, which should include professional accomplishments, leadership skills, personal style and board-related experiences, both corporate and nonprofit, according to Inforum.

Even with an impressive vita, women have hurdles to clear, often because of human nature being what it is, said Pew Wolters.

“We tend to hire people who look like us,” she said. “Companies must be intentional when they look for board members. Women need to think about the holes in their professional career and how to fill them.”

They also need to keep in mind the purpose they serve on the board, said Vanderwel, particularly if it’s a publicly traded company, which has responsibilities to its shareholders. Then it’s imperative that corporate board members know how to tactfully ask difficult questions.

Expertise also is key for small, startup companies that need all the intellectual muscle they can muster, Vanderwel added.

“The board is a group of people who set the direction for national and, perhaps, international questions and who can help determine who are your best customers,” said Vanderwel.

Some level of global experience that includes a working knowledge of a different culture is important to companies that compete on an international level, putting the term “diversity” in a different light, said Winston.

That doesn’t necessarily mean a woman needs to relocate to another country, said Winston.

“All companies today work on a global basis,” she said. “A lot of companies make the head of global sales right at corporate headquarters. It does mean a lot of travel overseas.”

Vanderwel agreed with Winston.

“At least half of companies have to think in terms of an international market,” said Vanderwel. “Just because you built the best widget in the U.S. doesn’t mean somebody in Hungary hasn’t built one they intend to market here. And, understandably, cultures are different. At the very least, travel, learn a language, and begin to develop an appreciation of another country.”

Panelists said a willingness to learn new concepts can go a long way.

“Always be curious about things around you,” said Pew Wolters. “Ask questions. Don’t dismiss what you don’t know.”

“Don’t worry about a question being a dumb question,” added Jandernoa. “As you become more experienced, you’ll ask more in-depth questions.”

Women must be cognizant of the time commitment serving on a board requires.

“You do twice as much reading in preparing for a board meeting as you spend at a board meeting,” said Jandernoa. “It is very important to prepare ahead of time and it’s expected of you. You can tell if someone hasn’t prepared.”

Those who are selected to serve on a board should only do so under the protection of liability insurance.

“We’re too libelous a society to not serve without liability insurance,” said Jandernoa.

Picking which board to serve on is a two-way street, said Pew Wolters.

“Bad boards are like bad marriages,” she said. “Boards are human systems. When boards start to do the job of management, that’s not a good thing. When they’re split on major issues, that’s not good, either.”

Vanderwel said regardless if it’s a product or service, aim for a board whose mission is something you’re passionate about.

It’s also a good idea to get approval from your current employer before agreeing to sit on another corporation’s board, said Winston.

“Not every employer is keen with executive-level employees sitting on another corporate board,” she said.

In the end, as much as people like to think corporate boards have become more egalitarian when it comes to gender, women still must establish their competence.

“You need to go on a board and quickly establish how serious you will be taken,” said Vanderwel. “Do it quickly. Women still have to be intentional right out of the gate. Determine who you want to be with: What group of people do you want to associate with?

“Women still have a lot of commitments and they don’t always have the bandwidth, especially if they’re raising a family. Do some soul searching and try it out.”

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